There’s a hard question for film stories that aspire to tell something of real history: can it ever be more than costume drama? There’s no doubt of the aspiration in James Gray’s The Immigrant; it’s there from the outset in New York harbour, 1921. The Statue of Liberty is seen from the back, high in grey fog, the uplifted arm not so much beckoning a welcome to those “huddled masses yearning to be free” as holding up something unattainable. The film that follows is a parade of images in greys and sepia, shadowed interiors with fringed lampshades, gaslight and dark furnishings, signs of hard labour towards respectability. The style is the work of a master cinematographer, Darius Khondji; it works like an archive of photographs. It says this film is not only a story, but also a document; and yes, you’re looking at melodrama with all stops out, but for many of the powerless, this is how it was.
In the thronged reception hall on Ellis Island, we find two sisters; the more purposeful, Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard), urges the younger, frailer Magda (Angela Sarafyan) to control her coughing. They get brutally short shrift from the authorities; Magda is brusquely tested and quarantined, and Ewa, for some unspecified transgression on shipboard, is held to be “a woman of low morals.” Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), an entrepreneur and predator, engineers an ambiguous kind of rescue, involving Ewa in prostitution and in the life of the low-rent music-hall, where the dancing girls know their sustenance is under threat from the advance of moving pictures. Phoenix gives us a classic Victorian cad; but Bruno falls in love, and Ewa into pity, the trap set for all of her kind. Some link the resilience to her Catholicism, but she’s hardly observant, letting a long time go between confessions; the piety, the keeping of her soul, has more to do with the immigrant’s determination to find a human world she can live in, and to that end she withstands one humiliation after another. Nor is there a solution in the love of a good man; the good man in this tale is a frail magician (Jeremy Renner) but his magic is only for the stage; he’s more vulnerable than Ewa herself.
Marion Cotillard gets away with an amazing degree of saintliness. She learnt Polish for the role; she gives her portrait of endurance in that language and in English, with the barest trace of a French accent. With pale clear skin and bruised eyes, she evokes her cinematic inheritance: Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms, Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, Ingrid Bergman stumbling up the mountain track in Stromboli. This film, however, breaks out of its generic confines, and finds our positions in the audience. From where we sit, the stubborn, buffeted immigrant is pleading at the gates; the bullies of Ellis Island in 1921 are figures and faces in our present. At their tender mercies, those girls would be off to Nauru, or – even more dishonourably – to Cambodia, in pretty short order.
Outside theatrical circuits, at large in the wider educational networks, some of the best documentaries build audiences over time. Over the past year, reports came through of a particularly engaging project being developed by the Canberra-based producer-director Andrew Pike, a work on the complex Mungo Lady story, where the traditional owners would have their say along with archaeologists and others involved as scientists and landholders. Now Message from Mungo (co-directed with the historian Ann McGrath) has emerged, a dynamic essay that asks for the widest general attention. It brings together black and white, present and distant past, pastoralist and scientist, and radically different kinds of knowledge. It also, subtly but clearly, investigates that difference.
You can find Lake Mungo on the map in the southwest of New South Wales; the dry lakes are shown as fine-ruled areas outlined in blue. The film opens on wide, seemingly unpeopled landscapes, miles of low scrub, emu and kangaroo country, and stretches of furrowed sand, stirred by wind. The processes of erosion exposed an extremely ancient gravesite, and the bones of a slender young woman who was buried there, with evidence of ritual, about 40,000 years ago. In 1968 those remains were removed from the site and taken to Canberra for scientific examination.
Mungo Lady, as she was named, made the site one of great archaeological interest; distinguished academics from across the world came calling, and Australia-centred archaeology gained in international prestige. But meanwhile, Aboriginal people who shared responsibility for that country began to argue, with increasing force, that the bones should be returned; that Mungo Lady was an ancestor to be respected, and that the discovery bore out their repeated affirmation: “we have always been here.”
In the filming by Andrew Pike and cinematographer Scott Wombey, the witnesses become vividly known to us, not least the late imperial elder Alice Kelly. By the time of the film she was dead, but others remember her intense interest in the scientists’ activities and her insistence on gaining understanding; this is taken up today by her daughters and granddaughter Tanya Charles. They are vivid presences, since they’re in charge of the story; there’s no ruling voiceover here, no white authority knowing better. The witnesses guide us through the story, and though archaeologist John Mulvaney opens the tale of the discovery with authority, he’s a participant, not a guide.
This documentary has been very carefully built; the patience needed for its making has become part of its content. If the most important message from Mungo concerns those utterly different concepts of time, deep time, kinship and inheritance (“we’re part of her, and she is part of us,” says one of the witnesses) there’s also the other side of it – our side, if you like. It’s about the white scholar’s process of learning, coming to estimate the scope and depth of philosophic difference. The archaeologist Isabel McBryde reverses the traditional balance of white specialist to Aboriginal informant; she tells how tentative she felt about being present on the day of the handover, and how important it was to be invited by the traditional owners to share that moment, in 1992, when Mungo Lady was returned to her land and her people. McBryde gives a gentle, eloquent description of her journey – running late, driving alone at night through solid dark and stars, to reach the occasion. Unseen but remembered, that purposeful drive now becomes both history and symbol. •